After a night of unexpected twists and defeats for all parties, the Scottish National party fell two seats short of the overall majority that the polls had predicted and that its leader had craved.
The SNP’s third successive election victory left Sturgeon with 63 seats, meaning she will need to seek short-term deals with other parties to push through her policies and, crucially, Holyrood budgets.
Scottish Labour endured its worst election result in more than a century, beaten into third place with 24 seats. The Scottish Tories became Holyrood’s official opposition after winning 31 seats, more than doubling their 2011 tally.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, won the constituency seat of Edinburgh Central, and her party’s share of the vote rose by 10 points following a campaign focusing heavily on Davidson’s claim that she would be the SNP’s most vigorous opponent.
Davidson called on Sturgeon to categorically rule out an independence referendum in the new parliament. “Now she has failed to win a majority, whatever claims the SNP were pursuing with regard to constitutional brinkmanship over the next five years have now been utterly shredded. No mandate, no majority, no cause – the SNP must now let Scotland move on,” she said.
Sturgeon said she had won “a clear and unequivocal mandate” as first minister, and said her large group of MSPs made it unnecessary to seek formal alliances with other parties. Sturgeon was deputy first minister in Alex Salmond’s first minority government from 2007 to 2011, which survived by striking short-term tactical deals, chiefly with the Conservatives.
“However, the government I lead will be an inclusive government,” Sturgeon added. “It will be firm on our determination to deliver on the commitments we made to the Scottish people but it will also reach out to others across the parliament to find common ground and build consensus.”
Scottish Labour’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, said she was “heartbroken” at her party’s poor performance but said she would not resign. Labour lost 13 seats overall and won in only three constituencies, down from 15 in 2011.
Dugdale said she took full responsibility for the result, but also said voters had been put off by Labour’s internal divisions under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Party sources said the antisemitism row involving the former London mayor Ken Livingstone had cut their support by five points.
“It’s quite apparent that when people saw a divided Labour party across the country, it wasn’t particularly appealing in terms of getting people’s votes,” Dugdale told BBC News. “So I would appeal to the Labour party the length and breadth of the country to unite behind our ideals, our values and our principles, and focus on the future.”
Her ally Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary and Labour’s sole MP in Scotland, questioned Corbyn’s leadership in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One. “I don’t think the public see the UK Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn at the moment as being a credible party of future government in 2020,” he said.
Having failed to match Salmond’s record haul of 69 seats in 2011, Sturgeon will spend the weekend considering who to appoint to her cabinet, and her first tentative approaches to opposition parties.
Both the SNP and Labour missed out on considerable numbers of votes in the regional list vote, raising doubts about their overall appeal and election strategies. The SNP’s regional vote was five points lower than its constituency vote, as its supporters lent backing to the more radical and leftwing Scottish Green party. More than 78,000 of the 514,000 people who gave Labour their constituency votes switched their list vote to other parties.
Deals with the pro-independence Scottish Greens, which took six seats to become Holyrood’s fourth largest party, would give Sturgeon a secure majority. But the Greens are expected to insist the SNP introduces tougher taxes on higher earners in return for its backing, something Sturgeon is likely to resist to avoid alienating centre-ground voters.
Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens’ co-convener, said it was too early to set out a precise list of demands to put to Sturgeon if she asked for parliamentary support, but confirmed that progressive taxation at national and local level was a priority.
Harvie said that would become a significant issue when Sturgeon needed a majority to push through her next budget. “The case for progressive taxation is strong, and they’re going to require support to get their budget through,” he said.
David Cameron, who played no part in the Scottish Conservative campaign, hailed Davidson’s victory as a realignment of Scottish politics. He said he would not have believed that the party’s fortunes could be transformed so dramatically within six years of him becoming prime minister. “That is what has happened and that is what is so extraordinary for our party,” he said.
In contrast, Scottish Labour’s disastrous showing marred a relatively good set of election results in other parts of the UK for Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour leader, who made only a handful of campaign appearances in Scotland.
Corbyn said Dugdale had fought with “determination”, but acknowledged that the Scottish party faced a great deal of rebuilding. “We are going to be with you. We are going to walk hand in hand with the party in Scotland to build that support up once again so that the Labour tradition in Scotland will be established once again,” Corbyn said.
Despite the scale of Dugdale’s defeat, there was no sign of open rebellion against her leadership. But there were demands from her deputy, Alex Rowley, for her to reopen the debate within the party on Scotland’s constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK to help win back pro-independence former Labour supporters who now voted SNP.
Rowley said the party had to produce “a clear vision for the future of Scotland” and needed to revisit the question of “home rule” for Scotland, or federalism at UK level, to give Holyrood full control over tax-raising powers and areas such as pensions or employment law.
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